As we enter a new year, a new administration, and indeed a new era, the advice most given to Barack Obama is model your presidency after that of Franklin D. Roosevelt's. Time magazine photoshopped Obama into a cigarette-chomping, bespectacled Roosevelt for its November 25 cover, and columnists Paul Krugman and Joseph Nocera, both of the New York Times, expressed the hope that, in Nocera's words, we'll be seeing "the new FDR."
But if Obama goes down that path, sadly, he will fail. Trite but true: the times are very different. Broad public programs modeled on the New Deal can't work the way they did in the 1930s and '40s, because the economics of the situation have changed. More important, so has the rhetorical power of the presidency.
That doesn't mean Obama is headed for failure. Presidents design their office around what they know — former governors tend to see the position as a "chief executive of the 50 states"; former armed-services officers see it as more organized along military lines. So what does Obama know? Chicago, the American epicenter of political patronage.
In Chicago, the chief executive (the mayor) primarily directs money to other parts of the public sector. In that sense, though he was never mayor, Obama may see himself as the embodiment of "the Chicago way" — with the Windy City (and its mayor's office), for better or worse, as the model for how the federal government ought to work. (That may be particularly apt now, given both that we're in an era when the federal government is dispensing bailouts and how the upcoming stimulus packages are likely to end up being distributed.)
The FDR model of creating vast public-works projects is unattainable. Unlike Obama, Roosevelt didn't have to contend with an immense network of regulatory hurdles — bidding, environmental, and labor — that could take years to clear out of the way before he could launch his initiatives.
This means that, if Obama wants to inject cash and jobs into the economy quickly, he has two choices: he can help the states launch recovery projects already on the drawing boards. Or, he can funnel money to state and local governments that are on the verge of bankruptcy.
The second option shouldn't be underestimated. State and local government now provides around 15 percent of the jobs in America, and 2009 will likely see a number of public-sector employers going broke — most notably, in the state of California. So the federal government is eventually going to have to bail them out, just as it bailed out banks and the auto companies.
That won't make Obama another FDR, but given his Chicago model, it may be a task for which he's ideally suited. Nevertheless, even if he's successful at rescuing floundering state and local governments, Obama still won't have the power to do much to affect the overall national economy.
And that's not all that will be out of his reach. Despite his own considerable skills as a rhetorical leader, Obama can't possibly emulate FDR in mobilizing the nation toward a single sustained path, because the lines of communication are different.